Inside an Active Volcano: Japan’s Mt. Aso

Power and Beauty in the Lush Landscape

For first time visitors to Japan, Kyushu is never really high on the list. A shame, as it’s a beautiful island with many unique cities. Not to mention it’s home to a natural wonder known as onsen, or hot springs.

Yet the wonder which creates hot springs also is responsible for something much more destructive: volcanoes.

In the prefecture of Kumamoto, Mount Aso reigns both beautiful and ominous over the landscape. It is the largest active volcano in Japan, emitting volcanic ash and toxic gas on a daily basis.

Two years ago I joined some friends on an excursion through the caldera, which is an impressive 120 km in circumference. It is so large that there are towns inside it, including the city of Aso. Talk about living dangerously!

Caldera of Mount Aso
The lip of the caldera towering above its residents. A gorgeous landscape to be sure, but forever a reminder of the planet’s power.

Though ominous it may seem, it’s as safe as living in a caldera can possibly be, as the eruptions forming the current landscape occurred between 90-300,000 years ago.

Kome Zuka
This circular hill is known as Kome Zuka, the rice bowl.

Most striking about the caldera is how fertile the land seems to be. In contrast to Mt. Fuji, whose sides are covered in rocks and ash, Mount Aso’s terrain is surprisingly lush.

Mostly unknown in the West, there is a respectable influx of tourists from Japan and other Asian countries. There are a few ways to climb the mountain, including by rope-way. We decided to drive up the side of one of the peaks, ending at a car park.

Mount Aso Parking Lot
Unfortunately, we were unable to go any further. Access to the summit was closed off that day because the mountain was emitting too much gas. This is a common occurrence given that Mount Aso is an active volcano. Those planning to visit should be aware of this possibility.

Other attractions in this area include hiking trails and of course the plethora of locations for hot spring bathing. I am biased toward the Kurokawa onsen, in large part because that was where we went to rejuvenate ourselves later that evening.

Getting to the mountain:
The easiest way to get to Mount Aso is by car. Leaving from Kumamoto City the drive takes about an hour and a half.

While public transportation on Kyushu is safe, clean, and punctual, many locations, especially those far from major cities, are poorly connected. In addition, some routes have limited or sparse service, making it important to plan ahead. This page has more information on getting to Mount Aso by train or bus.

Mount Aso
Another view of the caldera from the mountain. Note the unique grass patterns on the hills.

In light of the eruption on September 14, 2015, visits to the mountain may be disrupted. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Mount Aso once the ash settles.

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